A few years ago I was invited to a songwriter’s retreat… actually I was sort of hired along with four or five others, to mentor and encourage aspiring songwriters. There were about sixty or sixty-five of us at a beautiful retreat in upper Michigan. I agreed to do it with a certain amount of dread and trepidation, because I had just gone through a long bout with “writer’s block”. After Mary’s death, I went almost three years without being able to write anything. Nothing seemed worth finishing. Anyway, I talked myself into it… hoping the old cliche: “them that can, do…, them that can’t, teach…”, would pull me through. I was hoping that even if I didn’t write anything that maybe I could offer some encouragement and a couple of ideas to the others. What I didn’t know… was that everyone, faculty included, was supposed to write and perform the song they wrote while they were there.
John Lamb, the director and moving force of the retreat did his homework: He had a long, detailed suggestion sheet for each and every songwriter here. He took the time to find out, not only where we were from, but some interesting facts about our town or state. (some of it we didn’t even know ourselves). He was able to give us tangible things to go to when we were stuck. Each person’s assignment was to write a song based on their town, and each one had specific information to keep us connected. He also encouraged the use of colloquialisms that revealed the essence and rhythm of our town. And he also had several suggestions in case you got stuck and ran into a brick wall. I was impressed. It was so obvious how his process could be extremely helpful to aspiring songwriters. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me.
I’ve always known that I write differently… most writers get an idea for a song and do one of two things: 1. they write a poem and simultaneously write a melody to go with it, or 2. they write the poem and compose the melody later. Either way, the process of writing the song is a fairly well connected whole. With me… a melody comes to me long before anything else. I might have a melody in my head for weeks or months before I figure out what the song is about. Here’s the problem… by this time, I’m in love with this melody that’s endlessly running through my mind, and that means I’m forced to find words that fit EXACTLY. Not the best way to write. Also… I don’t write quickly. Elephants have babies faster than I write songs. So the idea of writing a song in a finite period of time was terrifying to me. All of the wonderful guideposts that John Lamb gave everybody to keep us on the problem at hand worked against me and just… well… paralyzed me.
On the final night of the retreat, we all gathered and performed the songs. Some were fantastic… standing ovation fantastic, and all of them were quite good and affirmed that John Lamb was onto something. That most of us could write a really good song with some guidance and the desire to do it. MOST BUT NOT ALL !!
In the end… I wasn’t able to write a song. I ended up with two lines. It was embarrassing. I just couldn’t do it… everything worked against me. All the information John gave us, which was so helpful to others, just stopped me dead in my tracks. I left the retreat vowing never to attempt to write a song again.
You see, John had found out I was from a small town in New Mexico… Portales, and that we grew peanuts there. “Portales, New Mexico: Peanut Basin of the Nation”. What he didn’t know that some damn visiting professor from Dallas, in his inimitable wit and wisdom had dubbed us “Goober Gulch” and the nickname had stuck, so I had grown up cringing at the name… he also wanted the song to be a “slice of small town life”.. a love story…. he wanted me to work a holiday into the song… and something about the financial circumstance of our hero… anyway, it was just too much stuff… so all I wrote was..”You ain’t got no money… your Visa was declined”… I didn’t get a standing ovation.
About four months later John came out to visit me and was threatening to put the word out that I didn’t live up to my obligations unless I wrote the song. He told me about others who’ve struggled with songwriting. There was one lady… she had gone through some sort of religious experience and would only write about St. Francis of Assisi. John also told me about a football nut who only wanted to talk about the Dallas Cowboys… I hate the Dallas Cowboys! Oddly enough when John told me of the religious lady and the football nut, it helped me… I finally wrote the damn song.
If you’d like to hear Portales…. it’s on my “Lost in the Words, Lost in the Music” CD.
- Portales Ronny Cox 4:07